From time to time it occurs to me that it’s been a very long time since I’ve experienced a thunderstorm. In fact, I haven’t really seen one in almost three and a half years. Where I grew up in the Midwest they were a frequent summer occurrence; where I lived in the South, particularly in West Central Florida, they were violent and occurred every summer afternoon. Here in Portland they’re rare.
I was extremely frightened of thunderstorms when I was little. It didn’t help that my grandmother was afraid of them as well, and some of that was transmitted to me. I remember my sister rebelling at my grandmother’s warnings about storms and sitting outside on the upstairs porch in a metal rocking chair during a storm, my grandmother pleading with her to come inside, and me crying because I was sure my sister would get struck by lightning and die. Once, when I was seven, my mother took me to a company picnic at French Park in Cincinnati and a thunderstorm came up quickly while we were there. Everyone huddled under the picnic shelter, and because it was open on all sides and the lightning was close, the thunder was deafening and I was terrified nearly out of my wits. As I grew up I learned to control my fears, but inside I would still get nervous when the lightning started.
When my first husband and I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, I dreaded the afternoon storms. One evening when we were driving out of town and were exiting the freeway, lightning struck within the wide circle made by the exit ramp, very close to us; I jumped and ended up on the floor of the car, which of course I was ribbed about for some time afterwards. A couple of years later my then-husband had gone scuba diving with a friend in a river some miles out of Charleston. A third person was supposed to pick them up when they’d finished the dive, but never showed. He called me and told me I’d need to come and pick them up. It was late at night by this time, and I could hear the thunder in the distance. “Yes, but there’s going to be a thunderstorm…” I faltered. “Are you kidding? We’re out here in the middle of nowhere with no clothes and no way to get home and you’re worried about a thunderstorm? You HAVE to come pick us up, and right now!” he bellowed. I said I would, and started out for the 35-mile drive.
It was about midnight as I drove as fast as the speed limits would allow, hoping to outrun the storm, but the rain soon splattered the windshield in huge drops. In a few minutes the windshield wipers were of little use, and I had to slow down. The lightning soon followed, striking furiously nearby as I gripped the steering wheel tighter and kept looking straight ahead. I wanted to turn back but it would have been no use, the storm was all around me, and thinking of my then-husband and his friend being stranded kept me going.
As I drove and the storm raged on, after a time I began to feel calmer, and the crashing thunder wasn’t making me jump so much. The storm was a nuisance, but I was handling it, and doing what needed to be done in spite of it. Nothing bad had happened, and the storm had mostly abated by the time I reached the landing where my then-husband and his friend were waiting. I knew he would not be impressed by my having driven there in the face of my fear, as he felt the fear was silly in the first place, but I felt quite the sense of accomplishment. From that point forward, I never felt afraid of a thunderstorm again. I had a healthy respect for them, of course, and would not do anything stupid during a storm just to tempt fate, but I was not afraid. I began to enjoy watching them, particularly the beautiful lightning displays in the distant sky. And in Florida, they were a welcome temporary relief from the incessant heat of the day.
What made me think of all this was that thunderstorms have been forecast for the past three evenings in Portland, but they missed us; we received only a few sprinkles of rain. A thunderstorm in Portland is very anemic; a couple of soft “booms” in the distance, and that’s about it. I’ve heard one healthy crash of thunder since I’ve been here, and laughed out loud when it occurred, because it was so unusual. My daughter and I remark from time to time that we miss a good thunderstorm a bit; the roiling, boiling sky and swift rise of the wind rustling the palm fronds before the storm, the storm itself rattling the windows, the cool moist air for a time after the storm; it’s one of the very few things I miss about Florida.
Note: In talking about this, I am not meaning to make light of the “dry” thunderstorms that often occur to our south and east in Oregon, setting off wildfires in the very dry forestland; such fires are being fought as I write this. If only they could be doused with rain during these storms, our timberland wouldn’t suffer as it does. Nature’s beauty and destruction wrapped up in one dangerously gorgeous package…